By Shifay Cheung
Williamson Strong Guest Blogger
There is an old saying that goes something like this: you can neither form opinions about people nor cultivate empathy until you have walked a mile in their shoes. Some say it was Confucius and some say it was the Native American Indians who first made this wise observation. No matter the source, it is a sentiment that spans generations and cultures.
At first, I didn’t want to share my thoughts for fear of making myself vulnerable and anticipating verbal abuse from strangers, but, as local, national and world events have unfolded, the top of which being the heinous acts of terrorism in Paris on November 13, I felt compelled to say something. In opening up about my personal experiences, my hope is for you to take a walk in my shoes and begin to see how the world looks through my lenses. Others may have different outlooks, but the things I have seen and felt are real to me and cannot be dismissed. You also have to understand why speaking out is taking a risk for me. My parents ingrained in me that I should work hard, keep my head down and make no waves, so people would be less inclined to pick on me, which plays into the stereotype of Asians being the model minority.
My parents escaped the political and economic turmoil of 1950s Guangdong, China, to Hong Kong and then made a decision to immigrate to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. They came with nothing and worked hard, often in appalling conditions, to make a new life, open a restaurant and raise a family. My formative, college and corporate career years were spent in multicultural British cities, Birmingham, Leeds and London. I was raised Buddhist-Taoist as was my husband.
My decision to move to the United States 15 years ago was not one I made lightly. It was an emotional upheaval to leave family, friends, a great career and a known way of life to start over. It was the right decision because my husband was already working in the U.S. and getting his green card, and we wanted to settle together. I was excited to come to a country made great by immigrants with a reputation for people with a “go-get” attitude making opportunities happen. I anticipated being welcomed by my neighbors with apple pies (my apologies, as such was my stereotype of Americans). There were no apple pies, but we did get brownies or cookies at various places.
Recently, my enchantment with living in the U.S. has been tarnished. Presidential candidates and lawmakers advocate the rounding up and deportation of 11 million illegal aliens, building walls across our southern borders, stopping Syrian refugees setting foot on our shores and creating a registry and database of Muslims in the country. Local representatives want the National Guard to detain legally settled Syrian refugees and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Such posturing makes me feel sick to my stomach and is illegal because it would violate the first amendment of the Constitution. Whatever has happened to the American people’s sense of humanity and compassion that attracted me to make a life here?
The Syrian refugees already living in the U.S. have undergone a two-year vetting process. If it was anything like the immigration process I went through, I can tell you that it was painstakingly thorough and slow, and, oftentimes, a humiliating ordeal. The questions I was asked and the act of having to prove a number of very intrusive things made me – a confident, independent and successful career woman – almost give up hope and feel like I was the enemy. It was over two years before I was allowed to join my husband in the U.S.
After we had lived in upstate New York for some years, my husband was offered an excellent career opportunity in Nashville. I was concerned about the lack of diversity in the population statistics I researched, but the academic reputation of the schools in Franklin and Williamson County made our choice a bit easier. The most recent U.S. Census for Williamson County shows that the population is 90 percent White. The percentage of Asians living here (3.7 percent) is higher than the rest of Tennessee (1.7 percent), but that is still an insignificant presence compared to the majority population.
Think about what it is like for me and my children in everyday interactions. Most of the time when we enter a room, we are the only Asians in a sea of white faces and reactions range from complete disregard to abject scrutiny.
I am a point of curiosity and novelty because when I open my mouth a British accent comes out from an Asian face. I have been confronted directly about whether my heritage is anything from Eskimo to Filipino. I have had “Ni Hao” and “Konnichiwa” thrown at me in equal measures without regard to whether or not I speak the languages. And, no, I don’t speak Mandarin and I am not Japanese. I can deal with scrutiny and treat it lightheartedly, but that comes with years of answering such questions. I am preparing my children to counter curiosity with patience and be proud of being different. The range of things my children have been asked include whether they were adopted because some children have only known children of Asian descent living with their white American families. They also have had to justify to their peers why they are not Christians and why they do not go to church.
Over the past year in our Williamson County community, I have read and heard local and state government officials, some school board members and a few “outraged” people try to convince me that there is Islamic indoctrination in our public schools. In the guise of “religious liberty,” these lawmakers have called for the postponement of all social studies teaching in Tennessee that mentions religion until tenth grade and even so far as to advocate for no state testing for social studies, which, in my opinion, is an underhanded way to eliminate teaching of world religions in social studies altogether. And the maneuverings continue, despite extensive fact checks and input from the vast majority of Williamson County stakeholder parents, current students and teachers’ expertise, which debunk the perception of unfair emphasis on Islam.
According to the “Religious Landscape Study” by the Pew Research Center, the religious composition of adults in Tennessee is 81 percent Christian, 1 percent Muslim and 1 percent Buddhist. The idea that in Williamson County, where the overwhelming majority of residents (including teachers) are Christian, someone is trying to indoctrinate or radicalize our children to become militant Islamic jihadists is ridiculous, but that would seem to be the implication. It only leads me to think that this paranoia is fueled by bigotry and the machinations aimed to suppress information about Islam because of fear and misunderstanding.
Please walk in the shoes of our Muslim families here, who are a tiny part of our local population. They live here peacefully and are law-abiding citizens wanting to live the “American dream” and wanting to add benefit to our community. Listen to the present rhetoric. Do you think it is safe for Muslim students, painted as potential terrorists, when they walk down the hallways of our schools? If you heard such hatefulness and nobody defended you, and your friends remained quiet, tell me what would you think?
Let me share painful memories of my youth, of obnoxious voices shouting “Chinky” at me, of children making “slitty” eyes and tormenting me with “sing-song” voices in the crude approximation of the Chinese language, of being spat at for being different, of having peers tell me my clothes stank, or that my hair was greasy because of my diet of Chinese food, of customers trashing our restaurant and refusing to pay in their drunken rants of prejudice, of my parents’ brokenness facing such hatred, of being the only black-haired girl in a sea of blond and feeling like the ugly duckling, of being ogled as a sexualized object when I got older because I was considered exotic by men, of fighting my way as a token minority in the corporate world. Much of the time, people remained quiet because they excused the teasing as childish pranks, or saw it as harmless jokes and didn’t take my feelings of hurt seriously.
With our community making national news in negative ways, consider the perceptions of Tennessee and Williamson County from the standpoint of people deciding a move here from other states and countries. They may think twice before they moved to a place seen as xenophobic and bigoted. My friends and family from across the world question why we moved here. It may be that you are unhappy about the population changes in Williamson County, 12 percent since 2010 and growing. This is the result of the success of our area and my family is one of the many faces of that growth. I am part of that 5.9 percent, who are foreign born and 7.5 percent, who speak another language besides English at home.
As a non-Christian but fully participatory resident of Williamson County with children in the public schools, I could complain about my perceived bias towards Christianity and Judaism in the social studies textbooks. However, living in the real world and not behind closed borders, I want my children to learn about all histories and faiths, secure in the knowledge that they have a strong values foundation at home and they have the right to ask questions.
I have gone out of my way to let my children learn the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and Bible stories. I probably know all the hymns you know since I was part of the school choir at a Church of England school and we sang at church services. And, to this day, I love going to Christmas Eve services. Does that make us Christian? No, it makes us tolerant and accepting and honors the good people we know by being respectful of their beliefs and respecting the example set by Jesus.
When my children were born, I finally understood why my parents instilled in me the mantra: “To know who you are, you need to know where you come from.” But, to some, acknowledging pride in my ancestry and Chinese culture is unpatriotic. Even now, as I write this, I have an automatic immigrant’s response in having to justify why we have a right to live here. It makes me want to shout until everyone hears that we are here legally, that my husband came into the country because of his exceptional skills set and he did not take a job away from an American, that he has a job that only one other person at his workplace can do, that my children are American and not anchor babies, that we are homeowners and pay our taxes.
All I want is to be treated equally and respectfully and for my children to be safe and have a well-rounded education so they will have their own opportunities. Yet, for some, it will never be enough just to be law-abiding unless I prove my loyalty by holding my culture as lesser to American exceptionalism, by denouncing illegal immigration and deporting millions (although I want immigration to be above board, I can understand migration because of my parents and their generation’s experiences), by supporting the rounding up of Syrian refugees already in our country, declaring that Christianity is the only religion, and “waking up” to the fact that we are all going to become part of a Caliphate under Sharia law, unless we go on a crusade to eradicate Islam.
Well, believe me, I am very much awake and I am not going to live my life in fear and neither will I let my children live under that fear. I have had accusations of naivety leveled at me because of my “dangerous” call for tolerance. To which I respond: if you only knew all the things I have experienced, you would never call me naïve. I have lived in places where there has been terrorism and bombings, multiculturalism and poverty. Yet, I have never felt so fearful from the use of ugly and inflammatory rhetoric until I moved to Tennessee.
It has been my life’s journey to be open-minded. I am not naïve to want tolerance. Tolerance is not condoning extremism, but is about compassion and respect for differences, cultures and traditions, which are outside your norms. It is the only way forward because the alternative is to deport people en masse based on fear and anger, and locking the doors of fortress U.S.A.
Do we want to live with the right to be free? Do we want to be seen as xenophobic people? Do we have to prove our Americanness by signing a loyalty clause? Look to our history and the dark chapters in our past. I raise the specter of Japanese-American internment during the Second World War.
What if tensions escalated between the U.S. and China, as some presidential candidates seem to be pursuing? Do I have to look over my shoulder in case someone shouts racial slurs at me, questions my right to be here, or worse? Do I wait for the cries of deportation of Chinese-Americans? It is not paranoia because I only have to look back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the extension of it by the Geary Act in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, which added restrictions, quotas and requirements that stopped the waste majority of foreign-born Chinese from seeking naturalization until Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965.
I ask you of what are you afraid? I am five foot tall. I have the same blood pumping through my veins. I want the best for my children. I have money issues and worries about how to pay for fieldtrips, music lessons, new shoes and Christmas gifts. Are you afraid my family will destroy the fabric of your society? On the contrary, we believe we are adding to the tapestry of our community. Please do not deny me the right to show my loyalty and still retain my sense of self through my culture and beliefs. We are the face of the future in our community, as are others with different faiths and cultures. We should celebrate this melting pot, not condemn it.
I probably will not get through to some people because no amount of facts, figures and majority opinion will sway them. They will still condemn me for being misguided and naïve and will want to say, “I told you so,” when something goes wrong. But, if you hear what I am saying, I challenge you to find someone who is not in your known worldview and put yourself in their shoes. Do you even know a Muslim family in our community? Do you even know if their kids go to our schools?
The way forward is through dialogue and communication, through getting your head around what is different, by being brave in talking to people, by facing the unknown and having love and not hate in your heart.
I claim my right to be here. I will stand up for you. Will you do the same for me and others who are different to you? Appropriately, as we are in the season of giving thanks, I give my grateful thanks for the support I have been shown by the friends I have made here. I am grateful to live in Franklin, where there are enough people from all over who will stand up for me and my children.
I wrote this from my heart in peace and with love and I hope you read it in that vein. I leave you with some of the words from “Imagine” by John Lennon: “…You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one…”
Shifay Cheung is a resident of Franklin, Tennessee. She has two children, who attend Williamson County public schools. Having been a minority in two countries, she has lived her life building bridges of understanding towards others. Her diverse experiences include working as a youth worker, corporate trainer, project and management consultant, journalist and writer. Currently, she works part-time at a local library, but her most important role of all is that of mom.